A hearing to determine whether Russian environmental prisoner Yevgeny Vitishko’s will leave his prison colony on a conditional early release before the New Year has been scheduled for Tuesday, December 22, his colleague Andrei Rudomakha told Bellona from Krasnodar.
But there are concerns caused by a number of perhaps intentionally crossed signals within the Krasnodar Regional court system that the next hearing could be postponed, leaving Vitishko, who has already been declared free, in prison for several more months at least, said Rudomakha.
Vitishko has served a year and 11 months of a 3-year-sentence at the Sadovaya Settlement Colony in Russia’s Tambov Region for supposedly spray-painting an environmental message on a construction fence erected in public forest on the Black Sea.
Vitishko was snagged in the gears of the giant Kremlin-driven machine to host the 2014 Sochi-Olympic Games, which weighed in at $51 billion dollars, making them the most expensive in history.
Ongoing revelations of trampled environmental laws and corruption surrounding Olympic preparations by him and his him and his colleagues at the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, or EWNC, made him enemies in high places. His imprisonment for the graffiti incident transformed him into an official scapegoat and an activist martyr. Amnesty International named him a Prisoner of Conscience.
Lawyers independent of the case have said a prison sentence for graffiti reading “this is our forest” is grossly out of proportion with Russian law, and is an offence that should have resulted at most in a fine.
The fence he was convicted of defacing, however, surrounds the giant summer home former Krasnodar Regional Governor and Sochi Olympic booster Alexander Tkachyov, and blocks access to a public beach. Tkackyov has since taken a post in Putin’s cabinet as Minister of Agriculture.
Hunger strike leaves Vitishko in questionable health
Vitishko’s health is in question. Between November 24 and Dec 14, he staged a hunger strike protesting the postponements of his release. He’s not had an objective medical assessment, but he told his EWNC colleagues by telephone that his blood pressure had dropped, his kidneys were in pain and that he was dizzy.
During his hunger strike he had been forced to continue his prison day labor job. In his latest call with Rudomakha, Vitishko said he was slowly ingesting baby food to regain his strength.
A free man still behind bars
On November 10, Vitishko was freed on an appeal for conditional early release by the Kirsanov Regional Court, near his prison colony. That ruling stipulated he would return home on November 21 if neither the prosecutor nor the defense file any additional motions – something both sides said they had no plans to do.
On November 20, as Vitishko was packing his bags to leave his prison colony, prosecutors filed a bluster of 11th hour appeals that led to two new hearings impeding his freedom, the second set for Friday, December 25.
The first appeal filed by prosecutors stated that Vitishko’s formal address upon release hadn’t been established by the Kirsanov court.
It has been assumed Vitishko would return to Tuapse, 70 kilometers Northwest of Sochi, where he lived with his family prior to his incarceration on February 14, 2014.
But prosecutors are said by Rudomakha to be pushing for Vitishko’s release to the town of Slayansk-na-Kuban, four hours by road from Tuapse, where Vitishko’s address is officially registered, court documents seen by Bellona indicate.
Where Vitishko serves out the remaining year and two months of his conditional sentence is no small question for the defense: The environmentalist’s movements will be restricted to whichever town he ends up in, and he will require special permission to cross city limits. If he’s made to live in Slayansk-na-Kuban, visits with his family will be impeded.
The second appeal filed by prosecutors stipulated that Vitishko’s freedom can’t be decided unless the owner of the defaced fence, a construction firm called Kapitel-2, is present in the courtroom.
Prosecutors at the December 3 hearing in Kirsanov asked for a continuance until December 25 to locate Kapitel-2 representatives.
Hearing to go forward, but risk of postponement lingers
The Tambov Regional court, a higher court than the Kirsanov Court, is scheduled, according to its official online docket (in Russian), to hear the matter of Vitishko’s address after his potential release on December 22.
Of the two hearings, Rudomakha said Tuesday’s is most likely to end in Vitishko’s immediate release, because the only determination judges have to make is where Vitishko will go from prison.
But Rudomakha and Yelena Shaysilova, the lawyer who will represent Vitishko on Tuesday, are worried this hearing, too, might be postponed.
Shaysilova said that on December 10, she received an official notification, which Bellona reviewed, from the Tambov regional court saying all documentation for the hearing had been sent back to the court in Kirsanov, which meant the couldn’t set a hearing date.
By December 15, however, Rudomakha said the Tambov Court’s official docket had been adjusted to reflect that the December 22 hearing was going forward.
This, however, doesn’t preclude that the hearing could be postponed. If the Tambov Court is not in possession of certain complaints filed by Shaysilova, the prosecution could conceivably ask for another continuance.
He would have a second chance at freedom at the December 25 hearing, but Rudomakha’s expectations that he would be freed from that one are low.